Right here on ionarts* I have finally published a review of Paul Johnson’s “Mozart: A Life”. It is not a very good book. At all. In the least. But even the worst book about Mozart deserves a soundtrack and unfortunately “Mozart: A Life” does not give any suggestions for recordings that can bring the music to life for the reader (if it were up to me, this type of book would always include an online playlist with a few key works to whet the appetite). In some way I am trying to fill this gap with this list of suggested listening and suggested recordings. Because the discography is long, I split it in three. (* Intended for Forbes.com, but since Paul Johnson is also a Forbes.com contributor, the editors informed me of the site policy never to have fellow contributors review each other's work, which makes good sense, actually.)
A playlist on Spotify – assembled as best possible the shoddy metadata and limited album availability of Spotify allows – can be found here: Sound Advice: Paul Johnson Mozart Discography
The recommendations are sorted by genre, not by chronology of mention in the book. Some of the recommendations, to insert a teaser, you may find again in an upcoming post of the “Best 20 Mozart Recordings” on Forbes.com.
Dances, Divertimentos & Serenades
Writes Johnson: “The nocturne-serenade (K.239 ) has a double bass solo, the only one I can think of in Mozart’s œuvre, plus a pretty substantial
backing of strings and timpani, and I should like to hear what it sounds like. But how often is it played?” Some statement, in a Mozart biography! But well, sound recordings to the rescue of the truly curious! Below it is, along with the Kleine Nachtmusik which obviously gets mention as well. Johnson is generally strong – or in any case elaborate – on the Serenades and devotes a good amount of space to them: “I dwell on Mozart’s serenades and similar works because, for instance, it was by no means clear when he wrote the Haffner Serenade that the symphony was to emerge within a decade as the most “serious” form of musical conception. It is worth noting that the wonderful Haffner Symphony (K.385) in D was originally written as a serenade and had its gravitas, plus scoring for four clarinets, added afterward. But we will come to that later. Here I merely wanted to ensure that Mozart’s serenades get their proper due.”
The following paragraph descends into wild speculation about Mozart probably (!) having called for iced punch as darkness fell, following the performance of the serenade on a June evening in 1776. It’s the type of writing where my eyes roll so hard, they see the front of my brain (or, depending on whom you believe, the back of my skull). Johnson in the paragraph above or surrounding paragraphs, never quite lets himself be pinned down whether Haffner Serenade and Haffner Symphony are related to each other by more than name. The proximity in which he talks about the two pieces, almost suggests so, but it would be wrong. Yes, Mozart had the habit of turning Serenades into Symphonies. And yes, the “Haffner” Symphony was thus created – but not from the Haffner Serenade, as one might surmise (though it, too, was turned into a Symphony – the latter simply being called “Symphony in D, after Serenade D.250”), but from a work that seems never to have been given its own K-number. Veteran conductor Martin Sieghart and his relatively newly formed chamber orchestra “Spirit of Europe” perform these two works splendidly, which you can tell easily by not falling asleep. After all, these were always intended to be (extremely sophisticated, granted) background music and not for concentrated listening from the couch.
The Wind Serenades K.388 and 375 are briefly mentioned, and K.361 in passing (but assigned the wrong K-number, “381” and its more famous nickname – “Gran Partita” – going unmentioned), and they should be part of this book’s soundtrack. Philippe Herreweghe has a wonderful recording of the Gran Partita K.361, and the “Nacht Musique” K.388 (Harmonia Mundi), but there’s a perfect box by the Ensemble Philidor on La Dolce Volta which also throws in the 12 Duos for Two Horns K.487 which Johnson describes as “wind adagios”, although it isn’t clear what exactly he means, because he speaks of two such adagios but gives three K-numbers. (K.411, 410 – both Adagios for Winds, alright – and 487).
Johnson likes to bring everything into vivid light by comparing things Mozart did to what Jane Austen would have done, and the dances danced by young Jane Austen “would almost certainly have included some composed by Mozart.” Almost certainly, we shall include some in this list, then! I’d like to pick just a selection of them, but Paul Johnson will have picked these – assuming he’s listened to them at all – off his out-of-print Philips Complete Mozart Edition, so you are saddled at least with the complete selection of dances from the slightly-available Brilliant Edition, which covers a very generous six CDs. You’ll be quite exhausted from reenacting young Jane Austen, after you’ve listened to them all. (The Spotify Playlist goes a little easier on you, in that respect.)
Concertos: Violin, Flute & Horn Concertos
Andrew Manze’s recording of the Mozart Violin Concertos 3-5 stuck out in a year (2006, the 250th anniversary) in which the market was inundated with Mozart. They only just didn’t make the Best Recordings of 2006 list, but probably should have, the way they’ve held up. The focus on three (the three better) instead of all five concertos is smart: the performances are brimming with life and a healthy dose of grit. Paul Johnson almost agrees with me, except so over-the-top that I am bound to recoil from my own statement: “It is a mistake to play two, let alone more, consecutively…” At least he grants, now overshooting his target, that “spread over a week the five make a complete education in the art of the violin.” The quality of these performances, meanwhile, absolutely transcends any questions of “Historically Informed Performance” or not, but there’s also Frank Peter Zimmermann whose recent recordings of the concertos was total (modern instrument) delight, of which either or both volumes would round out the Manze disc perfectly. Review of the latter on Forbes: Classical CD Of The Week: Mozart With Je Ne Sais Quoi. The second volume of Frank Peter Zimmermann’s recordings includes the Sinfonia Concertante performed together with the marvelous violist Antoine Tamestit.
Johnson sounds confusing on the flute concertos: K.315 is just one movement and usually called the “Andante in C for Flute and Orchestra” and K.314 is not a concerto “for [oboe] and flute” but for oboe or flute. But gorgeous they are, if you don’t mind the flute. In a supremely imaginative reading, they are all contained on flutist Sharon Bezaly’s disc who uses modern cadenzas (by Kalevi Aho). I have a feeling that Johnson would not approve, but they wonderfully refract Mozart in a modern light. Myself, I prefer the oboe version of K.314 (where it gets K.271k assigned; the “k” is important, by the way, lest you end up with the “Jeunehomme” Piano Concerto), but that’s a matter of taste. Anthony Halstead, finally, plays the Horn Concertos (K.417 is singled out by Johnson) on an instrument of Mozart’s time and sacrifices none of the perfectionism that the more modern instruments yield so much more easily, while retaining the tender tonal pleasures the valve-less horn can have. Christopher Hogwood leads with just the right zip that makes hearing even all three and a half concertos in a row a pleasurable proposition.
“[Mozart’s] dazzling Clarinet Concerto in A Major [is] the best thing he ever did, in my opinion”, Johnson opines. Well, there’s no arguing its gorgeousness, that’s for sure. Also interesting, but not mentioned by Johnson: Mozart most likely wrote it for the basset horn, a rare instrument of Mozart’s time that has since died out but has been resuscitated, mainly for the purposes of playing the two Mozart pieces for which it had been intended. There is a beautiful relaxed-yet-reedy quality about that instrument and I prefer it over the standard clarinet… except there are just so many terrific version for that instrument out there, too. Among those is that of Martin Fröst, one of the most imaginative and skilled clarinetists of our time. Recorded in audiophile sound, he’s impossible not to enjoy. He’s got Mozart’s playful side down to a T and turns on a dime to indulge in the lyrical side of the quintet as well as the concerto. But do try to hear the quintet with the Quatuor Stadler with J.C.Veilhan on basset horn, if and when it gets re-issued (hitherto on K617). A more tender performance cannot be imagined and the original instrument adds strikingly to the color. A good original instrument for the concerto would be the recording of Charles Neidich; a Radio Bremen recording (not well distributed, but available) titled “1791”, which also features the Adagio in B for 2 Clarinets and 3 Basset Horns and the Adagio in F for Clarinet and 3 Basset Horns as well as the charming Jiří (Georg) Druzecký Concerto for 3 Basset Horns.
Concertos: Piano Concertos
Of all the concertos, Johnson gives the piano concertos most space, which makes plenty sense: He wrote more of them than all concertos for all other instruments combined and they really are jewels – almost throughout. “[In 1773 Mozart] had tried his hand at an individual, original piano concerto, K.175, in D, and it was then that he introduced what was to become the hallmark of the classical concerto as Mozart conceived it.” “Six piano concertos are among Mozart’s finest works – K.466, 482, 488, 491, 503, and 537. But everyone has their favorites among them…”
| Mozart, Piano Concertos Nos. 5, 6 & 8 (K.175, 238 & 246)|
David Greilsammer, Suedama Ensemble
UK | DE | FR
Fortepianos used to be dreaded by casual classical music lovers, pushed upon them by zealous Early Music mavens: Clangy, bony beasts with little beauty. The newly reconstructed historical instruments of Paul McNulty have changed that and Ronald Brautigam’s pianism makes this release most recommendable to every Mozart-lover. While some of the releases in this line could have gained from just a little more zest, this disc with concertos Nos. 24 and 25 is a corker. David Greilsammer meanwhile navigates with lightness and enthusiasm through three bright and enthusiastic early concertos while Alfred Brendel and Neville Marriner remains safe, wonderful bets in Mozart that have become cherished classics for a reason, even if they don’t try to wring every last bit of (extant) excitement from the concertos.